Milestones to Militancy: What the Lives of 100 Jihadis Tell Us About a Global Movement

Milestones to Militancy: What the Lives of 100 Jihadis Tell Us About a Global Movement


4 min read


Until 2010 no one had heard of Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri, an Iraqi militant from Samarra, east of the Tigris. An unassuming figure who spent his youth in religious studies, he became a firm believer in using violence to accomplish Islamist aims. He soon entered a tight network of fellow Iraqi jihadis that included veterans of the famed Arab-Afghan Mujahidin. The relationships he formed guided his journey into al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which would become ISIS. After its leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri died in 2010, this 'quiet' but vengeful figure was propelled to global prominence as leader of one of the world's most brutal jihadi groups. 

Today we know him as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the global Muslim ummah. Baghdadi did not embark on this journey alone; he joined a much larger network with a long history.

In new research, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics (CRG) set out to explore how prominent militants made their journey to jihad. We analysed the biographies of 100 jihadis from 41 countries, and 49 groups, across the Middle East and Africa. Tomorrow's jihadi leaders are being shaped today as far afield as Somalia and Syria. They are forging the friendships and absorbing the ideology that will secure them prominent positions in this global, violent movement. 

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One hundred jihadis

We selected the militants in our sample based on their eminence within the movement, the quality of data regarding their life, and their geographical spread. Our sample crossed generations, from the early Mujahidin fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s to those fighting in the Syrian civil war. The leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS today can be linked through personal contacts over generations to the forefathers of global jihad.

Allegiances and splits in jihadi ranks, and the groups that form as a result, give us insight into the global jihadi movement. Understanding individual motivations and journeys is key. While such insights tell us about the dynamics at play today, they also help us see where the movement may be headed in the future.

Our analysis has shown that there is no 'typical' jihadi. Prominent figures have diverse socio-economic backgrounds, religious upbringings, and a range of educational levels. But the research has yielded striking trends across the sample.

Key findings

The jihadi elite is globalised. Forty-nine per cent of our sample had most recently been active in a foreign country. Meanwhile, 27 per cent of those operating in their home countries had returned from conflicts abroad, while 24 per cent of the total stayed in their home countries.

For global jihadis, it's who you know. Personal networks are key to the development of the jihadi movement. Our data links the leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS today to the forefathers of the movement through people they met in prison, at university, and on the battlefield.

Conflict hubs draw jihadis. Seventy-six per cent of prominent jihadis have fought in at least one of four major regional conflict zones. These are the Levant (Iraq/Syria), Sahel (Algeria/Mali/Mauritania/Niger), Khorasan (Afghanistan/ Pakistan), and East Africa (Somalia/Kenya). Though the movement is global, these hubs serve as gathering points.

Middle Eastern and sub-Saharan jihadis havebroadly separate networks. There is little cross-fertilisation between Middle Eastern and sub-Saharan African jihadi networks, despite groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda claiming to be global. However, a number of prominent militants from both continents spent time training and fighting in Afghanistan.

The majority of jihadis move from group to group. Fifty-one per cent of our cross-section joined multiple militant groups over the course of their jihadi career. In fact, 49 different groups were represented in our sample of 100 jihadis.

Prominent jihadis are often well educated. Forty-six per cent of our sample went to university. Of these, 57 per cent graduated with STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) degrees. This was double the number of jihadis taking Islamic studies.

Half of jihadis came from non-violent Islamist movements. Fifty-one per cent of the jihadis profiled had non-violent Islamist links before joining violent movements. One in four had links to the Muslim Brotherhood or affiliated organisations.

Most jihadi careers include time in prison. Sixty-five per cent of our sample of jihadis spent time in prison during their careers, yet only 25 per cent of those are known to have committed crimes or served sentences before becoming jihadis. In prison cells across the globe, future recruits were exposed to the ideology that later drew them to jihad.

Twenty-five per cent of jihadis have links to government. A quarter of our sample had previously worked for the state or security services, or had immediate family members in government service. This demonstrates that it is not just peripheral figures or those ostracised by the state who are vulnerable to extremism.

Our findings paint a picture of a global network formed by individuals who are linked across generations. In campuses and prison cells, in training camps and battlefields, future jihadis have formed friendships – and adopted an ideology – that would one day draw them into the leading ranks of one of the most influential and violent movements of our times. This global problem will not be solved by military might alone. The ideology that draws each individual along the path to violence is the enemy that must be faced.

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